Apr 13, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back to Axios World for tonight's 1,737-word (6.5-minute) global trek.

  • Tell your world-news-loving friends and colleagues to sign up here, and send me suggestions for stories to write and books to read during lockdown: lawler@axios.com
1 big thing: The vote and the virus

Primary elections in Seoul. Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The global coronavirus crisis is testing the world's democracies in myriad ways, but one is particularly fundamental: how to hold elections.

Driving the news: South Korea is a rare case. Millions of early votes have already been cast ahead of the April 15 election, which will be the first national poll held worldwide since the crisis reached pandemic proportions.

  • During two days of early voting, turnout was high and enforcement was strict.
  • Voters arrived in masks, kept their distance in line, underwent a temperature check and then slipped on disposable gloves before voting.

Flashback: Prime Minister Moon Jae-in had looked vulnerable due to a sputtering economy and unreciprocated outreach to North Korea.

  • But his approval rating soared as South Korea became a global model for how to contain a virus outbreak. Pollsters expect a strong performance.

The big picture: Most of the world remains on the other end of the coronavirus curve.

  • Elections have been canceled or postponed in 47 countries or territories due to COVID-19, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
  • They include Ethiopia’s general election (originally scheduled for August) and Chile’s vote on whether to draft a new constitution (moved from April to October).
  • Vladimir Putin was also forced to delay a constitutional referendum that could grant him the authority to rule Russia through 2036.
  • Hungary didn’t have upcoming elections, but that didn’t stop Prime Minister Viktor Orbán from canceling them as part of the country’s indefinite state of emergency.

Poland will turn to postal voting for its presidential election next month, with the ruling Law and Justice party rebuffing calls to postpone.

  • But while Andrzej Duda, the populist and popular incumbent, can make full use of the bully pulpit during the crisis, the strict lockdown makes it impossible for the opposition to campaign, says Michal Baranowski, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office.
  • That “clear advantage” could lead to a “crisis of legitimacy,” Baranowski said during a conference call last week. "This is really tearing us apart, it is further polarizing Poland."

Bolivia’s interim government already faces a crisis of legitimacy, with the forced resignation of President Evo Morales last November having thrown the country into political limbo.

  • It will remain there for a while longer, as the general election has been postponed from May 3 until sometime between June and September.

In Africa, 15 elections are scheduled before the end of the year, says Judd Devermont of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

What to watch: Leaders are being judged on a daily basis during this crisis. But if those judgments can’t be rendered at the ballot box, they're also unlikely to be expressed on the streets.

2. See no virus, fear no virus

A mural to Nicaragua's missing man. Photo: Inti Ocon/AFP via Getty

While some politicians have been criticized for a lack of leadership during the coronavirus crisis, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega takes that to an extreme.

Driving the news: Nicaragua’s government continues to encourage crowds at stadiums and on beaches during the pandemic, though Ortega has personally stayed away. In fact, Sunday marked one month since he last appeared in public.

  • Instead, the response has been led by Ortega's vice president, chief spokesperson and first lady. Those roles are all filled by the same person: Rosario Murillo.
  • As for Ortega, "Nicaraguans are nervously wondering if the former Marxist guerrilla is ill, dead or simply avoiding human contact," the Washington Post notes.

Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov can probably relate, and not only because he was recently rumored to be dead after a prolonged public absence.

  • One of the most secretive countries on Earth, Turkmenistan claims to have zero cases of the virus and is fiercely suppressing any evidence to the contrary, Foreign Policy reports.
  • But the government isn't entirely complacent. After Berdimuhamedov said a certain herb could keep viruses at bay, it reportedly began burning it to fumigate public buildings.

Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko is also fighting the virus with machismo rather than science.

  • “There are no viruses here. Did you see any flying around?” Lukashenko said of the threat from COVID-19, particles of which are about 0.125 micron in diameter. "It’s better to die standing than to live on your knees.”
  • Belarus is currently dealing with another risk — of nuclear radiation potentially being blown toward the country from wildfires near the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
  • Lukashenko was already rising through the Communist Party ranks at the time of the meltdown. That may be where he honed his approach to government transparency.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro also continues to downplay the threat, to the extent that some former allies are now backing calls for him to be impeached.

  • Unlike the other denialist leader, the Economist notes, Bolsonaro is "the elected president of a great, if battered, democracy."
3. Coronavirus complicates global food supply

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The journey from field to plate has been interrupted in our locked-down world.

In Europe, as in North America, the harvest depends on migration. 

  • German asparagus, French strawberries and Italian tomatoes are picked by Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians.
  • Harder borders are now limiting movement, and workers are reluctant to travel due to fears of infection or quarantine.
  • Officials across Western Europe have declared farmhands critical workers. They've also called on newly unemployed people to take to the fields — the French agriculture minister called for a “shadow army” of waiters, hairdressers and hotel staff.
  • It's not so simple. “Dutch people are used to working Monday to Friday, nine to five. But the asparagus keeps growing seven days a week,” one farmer told the Economist.

In India, the food supply depends on tens of millions of people working in farms, transporting food, and selling it in wholesale markets and at small stands.

  • When the national lockdown snapped into place, gaps appeared all along that chain.
  • “All the eateries on the highways are closed. I have nothing to eat,” a truck driver attempting to deliver tomatoes to New Delhi told the Wall Street Journal. “Everyone says we should keep delivering essential supplies. But the supply link can continue only if we survive.”

Fearing a prolonged crisis, some countries have halted exports of key foodstuffs — rice from Vietnam, wheat from Kazakhstan, fish from Cambodia.

  • That could have serious downstream effects for poor countries that import most of their food, the Washington Post notes, though other big exporters plan to keep trade flowing.

The bottom line: "There is enough food, but food and other essential commodities must keep moving," John Crisci, supply chain director at the UN World Food Program, tells Axios. "We cannot let this health crisis turn into a food crisis."

4. Refugees among most vulnerable to COVID-19 crisis

A migrant family on the Greek island of Lesbos. Photo: Manolis Lagoutaris/AFP via Getty

For millions of refugees and displaced people, access to health care is limited and social distancing is impossible, Axios' Rashaan Ayesh writes:

Why it matters: Public health experts view a major outbreak in a refugee camp as a worst-case scenario in the global coronavirus crisis.

Zoom in: A John Hopkins University model of a large-scale outbreak among Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh — the world’s most densely populated refugee camps — estimated that 1,647–2,109 refugees could die.

  • Refugees in the camps are subject to an internet blackout and ban on mobile phones, leading to concerns they lack critical information about symptoms of the virus and preventing its spread.
  • If the virus does reach the camps, it will increase tensions with nearby Bangladeshi communities, the International Crisis Group warns.

Around the world:

  • In Greece, at least 20 refugees living in a camp near Athens tested positive for the virus, NPR reports. There are about 60,000 refugees living in camps across Greece.
  • In Italy, the government officially closed its ports to ships carrying refugees due to the pandemic, Al Jazeera notes.

Refugees and displaced people don’t exclusively live in camps. Many live in metropolitan areas, but could still struggle to access health care if they lack citizenship or documentation.

  • In Portugal, the government announced all foreigners, including refugees with pending applications, will be treated as residents at least until July 1 so they can access health and welfare services, per Reuters.
5. Poll: How Americans compare on coronavirus

54% of American workers are “very concerned” about their job security due to the coronavirus crisis, according to polling from Kekst CNC, an international strategic communications firm, shared exclusively with Axios.

By the numbers: That's compared to 41% of Brits, 44% of Germans and 35% of Swedes. Americans are also most concerned about their household finances.

Still, majorities in all four countries prioritize stopping the spread rather than reopening the economy, even if it means a possible economic depression.

Adapted from Kekst CNC, margin of error ±3.3 percentage points; Chart: Axios Visuals

Key findings:

  • Brits are far more likely than Americans to expect impacts lasting over a year on their lives (36% vs. 25%), their country (64% vs. 29%) and the economy (78% vs. 36%). Swedes and Germans poll closer to Americans.
  • Germans (76%) are far more likely than Brits (51%), Swedes (50%) or Americans (44%) to believe the government should bail out all companies struggling due to the pandemic.
  • Only Americans say the crisis has given them less faith (-6%) in their national government. Faith in the state has surged in Germany (+23%) and the U.K. (+19%), while confidence in local government has increased everywhere but Sweden (-4%).

What to watch: Respondents from all four countries say that even after the outbreak, they’re less likely to travel internationally (-28% in U.S.), go to big public events like concerts (-31%), go to the movies (-26%), gyms (-20%) or eat in restaurants (-20%). The drop-offs were steepest among Americans.

  • Americans are most likely to say they’ll work from home more (+8%), and Germans least likely (+1%).
  • Respondents from all four countries say they’ll spend more time outside.

Worth noting: The polling was conducted between March 30 and April 3, and attitudes may have shifted in the past two weeks.

6. Meanwhile, on the hardwood

Photo: Gene Wang/Getty Images

Taiwan's impressive response to the pandemic has allowed for the return of basketball — its SBL is the only pro league currently playing.

Why it matters: Though it's much smaller than the NBA (five teams compared to 30), the SBL's game-night protocols and empty arenas provide a glimpse of what NBA games might look like if conditions allow for its return this season, Axios' Kendall Baker writes.

  • The only people allowed inside are teams, referees, scorer's table officials, camera operators, TV broadcasters and journalists.
  • Players are kept out if their temperatures exceed 99.5F.

The game is back, but the energy isn't.

"The only noise is from your teammates. ... When I get a dunk, you want to scream, but you can't. It's pointless. So I just run back on defense."
— Player Charles Garcia, via NYT
7. Stories we're watching

The Passion and the virus, in Mexico City. Photo: Hector Vivas/Getty Images

  1. OPEC+ completes historic oil cut deal
  2. Trump to hit Biden as soft on China
  3. Delays after faulty China PPE exports
  4. Boris Johnson out of hospital
  5. Pope Francis livestreams Easter
  6. Historic drop in carbon emissions
  7. India's skyline suddenly clear


"On Easter Monday ... men go door-to-door, singing a ditty and whipping women's legs and buttocks. They are rewarded with painted eggs and shots of plum brandy."
— The BBC on a Czech fertility ritual that has been suspended due to coronavirus
Dave Lawler